Representative Steve Handy was beaten by right-wing newcomer Trevor Lee, while other Republican lawmakers will be pushed into the primaries.
For Utahns looking to understand the future of the Republican Party in 2022, there was no better place than Farmington High School on Saturday. The, candidates for the Davis County Republican Convention went through culture war issues dominating the zeitgeist on the American political right.
Stand up against government mandates and excesses? To verify.
Critical race theory warnings creeping into Utah schools? You know.
Attacks on President Joe Biden? Absoutely.
Other political issues such as rising inflation, tax cuts and the preservation of Utah’s increasingly scarce water sources were also discussed. Yet it was more of a garnish on the red meat plate served to delegates.
Donald Trump’s presidency and subsequent loss of President Joe Biden, combined with growing anger from two years of Covid restrictions, have reoriented the party to such a degree that it’s hard to believe Senator Mitt Romney was the nominee. GOP presidential election just a decade ago.
The party’s difficult shift to the right cost longtime state Rep. Steve Handy of Layton his seat in the Legislative Assembly on Saturday. One of the more moderate Republicans in the state, Handy, was beaten by newcomer Trevor Lee, who embraced several right-wing issues during his campaign.
On his campaign website, Lee says he supports election audits and wants to pass “heartbeat” legislation, which bans abortions once a heartbeat is detected. Lee also says he favors banning “anyone with male DNA from competing on women’s sports teams (sic)”.
Handy was one of many Republicans who reversed their vote to help override Governor Spencer Cox’s veto of a bill banning transgender athletes. Though the vote change wasn’t enough to sway Davis County delegates to support the longtime lawmaker. Lee is now unopposed in HD16.
On Saturday, other prominent Davis County Republicans were forced into a primary contest by more right-leaning candidates.
Senator Jerry Stevenson of Layton, co-chairman of the Legislative Assembly’s senior budget committee, was sent to a primary against Betty Young. His campaign website focuses on the perceived loss of parental rights and freedoms.
Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, was sent to a primary against Ronald Mortensen, who has a habit of sharing fake anti-immigrant rhetoric. Mortensen was nominated for a top State Department job by former President Donald Trump, but was never confirmed.
Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, avoided an outright loss on Saturday by taking the signature-gathering route toward potential re-election. He advances to a June primary against Lyle Mason, who has been a favorite of right-wing groups like Utah Parents United.
Utah’s HD18 — which is open after Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, announced he will not run for another term — features a primary election between a former Centerville Mayor Paul Cutler and Alena Ericksen.
Ericksen, who briefly ran for Congress in 2021, adopted rhetoric common to the far-right anti-government sovereign citizen movement. She also sued state officials and the Davis School District over coronavirus-related restrictions. The two lawsuits sought nearly $1.5 billion in damages.
The startling shift to the right on Saturday was evident throughout Saturday’s convention, focusing on culture war issues rather than more traditional Republican topics.
Even the international crisis resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was only a passing mention, only appearing during the opening prayer and Governor Spencer Cox, who oddly linked it to his signing of last year’s bill allowing the carrying of a concealed weapon without a permit.
“Let me tell you, our Ukrainian friends understand the importance of the right to bear arms,” Cox said.
He also used the crisis to attack the Biden administration’s decision to suspend new oil and gas drilling leases on public lands.
Even the House’s top Republican, Speaker Brad Wilson, has adjusted his approach to deal with his first intraparty challenger since 2010. His speech to delegates on Saturday was a clear example of that changing political landscape.
Wilson spent much of the just-concluded 2022 session focused on saving the Great Salt Lake and delivering a $200 million tax cut package. On Saturday, he began attacking former state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, whom Utah Republicans vilified over unpopular pandemic restrictions.
“I was in a meeting two years ago with the President of the Senate, the Governor, myself and Angela Dunn. Dr. Dunn was advocating something that we all thought was troubling. She wanted to keep our school closed. She wanted to close our And she wanted us to stay home, which was basically having the government tell us what we can and can’t do and control every aspect of our lives,” Wilson said.
After discussing efforts to keep “harmful ideologies” out of Utah schools, an indirect reference to critical race theory, he ventured into the more familiar rhetorical terrain of tax cuts.
“Over the past few years, we’ve cut taxes for seniors, businesses and other Utah residents, but we still have a long way to go. We’re not done cutting your taxes,” Wilson said.
That was enough for Wilson, who garnered enough support from delegates to avoid being sent to a primary, even though he collected signatures to be safe.
Saturday’s results may provide a clue as to how much good delegates at next month’s GOP state convention might lean on. Last year, Republican delegates rained down boos on Senator Romney and Governor Cox. A further step in that direction could see more longtime Republican office holders facing an unexpected primary or suddenly being removed from office.